How time flies. It felt like it was going to go on forever, but after 14 long weeks of classes plus draining finals, my exchange semester is, alas, coming to an end. Now, with just one last exam in the way of my swan-song walk down Locust, I’m a mixed bag of feelings, with happiness and regret competing for attention in my heart.
I made some valuable memories during this unique semester of my college life. I attended a live Sixers match. I walked in late to my class nine lectures in a row (probably more). I finally watched The Bachelor, thanks to the jewel I discovered in Xfinity for Campus. I nearly froze to death in the two degree (that’s nearly -17 degrees Celsius for my metric friends!) weather during my “spring” break trip to West Virginia. And I got to live in a dorm for the first time in college! (My university back in Australia doesn’t believe in on-campus dorms, for some reason.)
However, I felt that there were certain things lacking from my otherwise-satisfactory semester, one of which being: why is it so hard to make friends with Penn students? Before landing in America, I thought I would be able to quickly form friendships at Penn, just like I did back in my university, and have a memorable, if not a little hectic, few months before flying back to normalcy. I just didn’t count on Penn being too busy for me.
When I looked around at other exchange friends, they seemed to be having a similar problem. Yes, there were occasionally some nice people who didn’t mind getting to know the exchange students more, but the majority of the campus seemed to be too occupied with life to focus some attention on the fresh-faced visitors left to fend for themselves.
Fortunately, I had an opportunity to explore more about this invisible wall between exchange students and regular students as part of my classes. In one of them, “Magazine Journalism” (shout out to professor Avery Rome for imparting so many words of wisdom!), the assignment was to make a short magazine. My theme was exchange students, and I was able to go around and interview my fellow exchange friends on how their Penn days were going, including their thoughts on this “exchange bubble.”
They had some speculations on why connecting with regular Penn students seemed hard. Some said maybe it’s because they have pre-existing connections, so they are not interested in expanding their social circle. Some suggested it’s because there is no point in investing in friendships that will be gone after a few months. Others said maybe they are just too busy to invest in new friendships.
Whatever the case may be, connectivity is an important issue for students studying abroad, because isolation can happen very quickly for students who struggle to form relationships. I personally have heard stories from fellow study abroad friends who spent their nights crying because they felt so lonely. Some of them were even starting to feel depressed.
Of course, many exchange students still make happy memories, through traveling and taking part in the nice, supportive exchange community that Penn has. They also join different club activities and campus events, meeting some amazing friends and getting their personalized exchange experience. However, even for these students, there is always a little disappointment that stems from just being seen as a visitor, which can limit their full immersion into campus life. And that campus experience is one of the most important aspects of being an exchange student.
So what can you do to help these excited visitors make the most of their semester or two at Penn? I think the continuity of conversations is crucial. Many exchange students report that meeting friends outside the classrooms is difficult, and even within classes, they struggle to get beyond small talk. While the problem could be that it takes time to form deeper friendships, time is something that exchange students don’t have. By taking the extra initiative to break past the small talk, and inviting exchange students to hang out outside of classes, you can help add new memories to the experiences of exchange students at Penn.
Meeting exchange students can be a valuable experience for you, too. You can learn more about the countries you were always interested in, or get some tips about your future exchange destinations. You can also visit them later in their own countries, where they can host you in return, and give you a tour around all the hidden cool places. They also have different experiences from other international students at Penn, which can help build on the global mindset Penn promotes.
It wasn’t perfect, but I still had an unforgettable time being an exchange student this semester. I made some great friends (shout-out especially to Penn Cru and UPOC!), learned some new things (including that you have to write down your tip on receipts), and got to discover more about the Penn community. I just wish I had more time to develop what I built this semester, instead of having to fly back so quickly.
So, will you make the extra effort to welcome and befriend next semester's batch of exchange students? It will be a nice, considerate gesture that they will remember and appreciate very much, and could be the start of some awesome friendships for years to come.
DANIEL SONG is a second-year exchange student from the University of Melbourne on the pre-med track. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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